Tag Archives: S.K. Ali

Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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I reread my review of Saints and Misfits before diving in to this sequel that can also work as a stand alone, and imagine my absolute delight when all the things I wanted more of: Muhammed and Sarah, the mom, Jeremy, etc., were explored in this wonderful high school and up, 320 page, romantic comedy story.  The romance stays halal and the comedy light, but seamlessly interwoven into a weekend wedding are very serious notions of racism and prejudice within the Muslim community.  The writing is flawless as I tried to tell the summary to my daughter I realized just how many characters there are in the book, yet while reading, I never once was confused about who someone was or how they fit in to the family, it really is quite remarkable how real and personal the characters all become.  In many ways the story is uniquely an American-Muslim (arguably) one with characters that are half this culture, a quarter that, wearing cultural clothes to coordinate with friends, mutli lingual, multi ethnic, and yet all coming together as friends and family.  We, nor are the characters perfect, but that our weakness is explored in fiction so that we all might benefit in reality, is truly remarkable.  I honestly couldn’t put it down, and my teen and tween children may or may not have had to figure out their own meals, as I hid in the corner to devour this book in a single day. I regret nothing.

SYNOPSIS:

Janna Yusuf has just graduated high school and has been spending the last few weeks at her father’s sprawling house on a lake to help with wedding preparations for her beloved older brother.  What started out with plans to be a small nikkah between Muhammad and Sara, has quickly snowballed into a “wedding” with a few hundred guests and an ever evolving color scheme.  With extended family and friends pouring in over the three days, Janna is anxious to see Nuah and finally tell him that she is ready to return his feelings, reunite with her mom after being apart for weeks, and see who her best friend Tats is bringing as her plus one.  But, Nuah is acting weird, her mom seems to be considering remarrying, and her father is revealing himself to be racist.  There is a lot going on, and in between wedding preparations, possible crushes, family drama, prejudice overtones, and a curious ice cream man, Janna is having an unforgettable weekend.

Janna and Muhammad are close, they are the children of an Indian American non practicing father and an Egyptian American religious mother.  Their parents have been divorced for a while, and their dad and his Greek wife Linda have two little boys and are hosting everyone and the wedding.  The heart of the story is Janna as she thinks she is ready to pursue something halal with Nuah, but is slightly intrigued by Sara’s cousin Haytham and very perplexed by her mother’s potential future new husband’s nephew Layth. Being it is a wedding, and many people are staying at her father’s house and many more at the hotel in town with their own families.  Jana is trying to figure stuff out about Nuah while hanging out with Nuah’s older pregnant sister.  She is constantly thrown together with Layth as she meets his Uncle Bilal, her mom’s college friend that has proposed to her, and who’s own daughters are friends of Sarahs.  Yeah, there is a lot of overlap, a lot.  It’s like real life. As attractions wax and wane in such a short time, it is the relationship Janna has with her own family and the contentment she must find within herself that ultimately matter most.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic the story and its characters are.  I come from a small family, but a very close friend has a huge family, and this just reminded me of going to her family events and finding how interconnected and small the world really is.  I absolutely love Janna, she is Muslim by choice through-and-through and is genuine in her understanding and actions that, while the book is meant for Muslims and nonMuslims, she really sets the standard of how fictitious characters can positively affect their readers.  The only slightly forced thread for me was Janna suddenly loving animals and being ready to head to Peru.  I get that she was crushing, but it seemed a little too over the top for an otherwise very plausible plot.

The best part of the book, in my opinion is that it isn’t all fluff and fun, there are some very real issues that get spotlighted.  Like in Saints and Misfits where Janna is sexually assaulted by a seemingly devout, religious, well liked male, this story addresses racism and prejudice within the Islamic community.  Janna’s dad always felt treated as less than by Janna’s mom’s family for not being Arab.  He flat out warns Janna about her feelings for Nuah because he is Black.  Sarah’s Aunt is offended that the mendhi is more Desi than Arab.  The issues aren’t just pointed out, they require active acknowledgement and action.  The author’s note at the end, even discusses the significance and weight of such views at the end.

FLAGS:

There are mentions of the sexual assault that happened to Janna in the first book.  There is mention of periods, a possible affair, racism, and a character who drove while drunk and killed his son as a result.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this book would be a great fit for a school book club, but I think a group of high school or college aged girls would thoroughly enjoy reading this and discussing it, and I would totally invite myself to their gathering to do so.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

blueLOVE! Yes, usually when I’m so anxious for a book it disappoints, but not this one, it warmed my heart and soul and made me smile.  In 40 pages surrounded with absolutely adorable illustrations, the reader feels the love between siblings, the strength of self confidence, the power of being true to yourself, the beauty of hijab, and the awesomeness of light-up sneakers and five cartwheel recesses.

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It is the first day of school for sisters Asiya and Faizah, and Faizah’s first day of wearing hijab.  The book starts out with the girls and their mom picking out a new scarf at the store.

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The first day of school has the girls walking to school hand in hand, Asiya in her beautiful blue scarf, and Faizah in her new shoes admiring her sister as if she were a princess.

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In line a classmate whisper asks Faizah about her sister, and Faizah has to find her voice to speak up about her hijab.  She then likens the blue hijab to the sky, special and regular before recalling that their mom had told them “The first day of wearing hijab is important. . . It means being strong.”

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Throughout the day at school Faizah checks on her sister, sees other kids make fun of her, liken the blue to something beautiful, and then recall something their mom has told them to give her solace and strength.

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As Faizah puts into practice the lessons from her mom about being strong, knowing who you are, and not carrying around hurtful words, she, like her sister finds strength.  A strength which radiates to those around them, and further connects the two girls.

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Faizah has an amazingly sweet and authentic voice as she counts her light up steps and looks up to her older sister.  I love that the story stays on track and has its own rhythm of a school incident, a strong declaration about blue, a lesson remembered from Mama and a resolution.  With lots of mini climaxes the reader sees the strong perseverance and how being authentic will be challenged repeatedly.  The subtly of the hijab being whispered about and then proclaimed loudly is really tender and emotion filled.  Little reminders why OWN Voice stories are so important.

The illustrations are absolutely amazing on their two page spreads: the colors, tone, expressions, are perfect and a huge part of the narrative.  I love that when a boy points at Asiya, not just Faizah, but Asiya’s friends too are unhappy with the boy.  I also like that the boys being mean are not depicted clearly, but rather are shown in the shadows, furthering the point that mean words and those that spout them are not worthy of your time.

There are Authors’ Notes at the end and a picture of Ibtihaj  and her two sisters Asiya and Faizah. I think the book should be on every shelf, truly.  To be yourself and be proud of who you are is universal, as is kindness. The book does not discuss religion or mention Islamic reasons for her covering, and girls and boys alike will benefit from multiple readings of the book.

 

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

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Now that there is legitimately a genre of YA Islamic Romance out there told in Own Voice, the expectations are high that a book is compelling, realistic, and unique somehow.  While the author’s first book, Saints and Misfits was pretty ground breaking, this 342 page was a great read, but not nearly as remarkable or memorable.  Granted it is not fair to compare the two books, and each day I do age out of the target demographic, but while the story reads authentic and true, albeit a bit serendipitous, it doesn’t have the teeth or grit I was kind of hoping for, and with a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis my emotions were pretty invested.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from both Adam and Zayneb’s perspectives by way of their individual “Oddities and Marvels” journals, our two characters are presented by a narrator who keeps their story on track and interjects when their versions of an event differ. 

Zayneb is a high schooler and activist who has recently been expelled for threatening a teacher who consistently lets his Islamaphobic beliefs take over the days lessons.  In an environment filled with micro aggressions against Muslims, Zeynab’s parents are at a loss at how to keep their daughter from making waves, and thus allow her to leave her Indiana home a week before spring break to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar.

Adam is at University in London where he has recently been diagnosed with MS and as a result has stopped going to classes, and is literally “making” the most of the time he has by making things.  As the term ends and he officially withdraws from school, he heads home to Doha to tell his dad and sister that he has the same disease that took his mother’s life years early.

The two characters meet at the airport briefly and then again on the plane and then at Adam’s house and the needless to say  their accidental meetings allow for friendship to grow, attraction to be built upon and a relationship to develop. Both characters have their own lives and own obstacles and own maturity that needs to occur in order for a happy ending to take place, and thus the book keeps you interested, invested and cheering them on.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the dynamic of how the book and characters are set up.  Both are practicing Muslims, both characters don’t cross a line, both characters have diverse mixed cultural backgrounds, and one is a convert and the other the daughter of a convert.  She is fiery and impulsive and emotional, he is pragmatic and calm and quiet.  While they have some background in common, their life experiences are rather different and it is very much a story about opposites attracting.  

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, and so I knew my expectations would be too high.  That being said the book warns it is a love story and in some ways, that was what I kind of felt was lacking.  There was the physical attraction that was mentioned fairly often, but the deep connection of ideas or growing seemed a bit lacking.  

I really liked Adam, and his internal stresses and struggles and coming to grips with his disease seemed pretty developed.  Somehow though, and I’m probably in the minority, I didn’t love Zayneb.  She is impulsive and definitely learned and grew from the start of the book to the end, but I didn’t love her nuances with dealing with the Emmas and her friends back home and unraveling her teacher, it felt kind of forced and I can’t articulate why.  I’m glad she matured and she got answers about her grandmother, but maybe I should have felt so much in common with her and when I didn’t, I felt a little irritated.  Clearly I get too invested in fictional characters, I’ll admit that.

I like that Islam is presented in a non defensive way.  The parents aren’t evil, there is no rebelling, even the awful teacher spawns backlash and allies to Zayneb and her cause. There is no apologizing or overly explaining if the characters are pushing boundaries established by Islam or if they are establishing their own boundaries based on their understanding of Islam.  I like this, because it shows that Muslims are not a monolith, we are not one way good or bad.  Zayneb covers and prays and has friends that are boys and her family is kept in the loop of what she does, which alone breaks so many of the predominate stereotypes about Muslims.  Adam himself converted at age nine and plays the guitar and has friends that are girls, and is close to his sister, and likes dogs.  A side character is noted to be incredibly religious, but doesn’t cover.  The story takes place in an Islamic majority country, but attitudes at the swimming pool don’t allow Zayneb to dress modestly while she swims.  

Overall, the book is a delightful read that manages to keep the religious integrity in the characters and show their personalities as they come of age.  It may not be memorable years after reading, but what you do remember will be positive, and while you are reading it, you will have a hard time putting it down.

FLAGS:

There is angsty romance, and talk of sex.  The two main characters keep it pretty clean, but the side characters joke about hooking up, being horny, and sneaking off to hotel rooms.  The non Muslim aunt has a secret alcohol and cigarette stash that she gets called out on, but nothing more is mentioned about it. I think 9th or 10th grade and up will be perfectly ok to read.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a lot to unpack in this book and I think if one just listens, teens will naturally add their own opinions and perspectives on EVERYTHING the characters experience, feel, question, and cope with.  The book just came out, but I would imagine that over time discussion questions will appear.

Author’s website: https://skalibooks.com/books/

Interview with the author: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/an-interview-with-s-k-ali-author-of-love-from-a-to-z/

 

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.